By James B. Kelleher
CHICAGO (Reuters) - A bitter dispute between unionized public school teachers and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has residents of the third-largest U.S. city bracing for a possible strike on Monday in a showdown over education reform that has national implications.
Nearly 30,000 public school teachers and support staff represented by the Chicago Teachers Union have vowed to walk off the job starting at 12:01 a.m. on Monday if an impasse in contract talks with the city is not broken.
Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff to President Barack Obama and a speaker at the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, has made reform of Chicago's troubled public schools a top priority. Emanuel cut short his trip to the convention in Charlotte to deal with the teacher crisis.
Earlier this year, he succeeded in pushing through a longer school day. But the union is opposed to other proposed reforms, including tougher teacher evaluations tied to student test scores and giving principals wide latitude in hiring.
The union also wants a larger pay increase than the 8 percent raise over four years that Chicago is offering.
The threatened walkout, the first in Chicago in 25 years and one of the largest labor actions nationwide in recent years, comes at an awkward time for Emanuel's former boss, President Barack Obama, who spent much of his adult life in Chicago and owns a house in the city.
Obama and Democrats facing voters on November 6 are counting on unions such as teachers to get out the vote around the country in a close election.
Chicago's public school system has more than 400,000 students enrolled, making it the third-largest in the country behind New York and Los Angeles.
Both sides in Chicago agree the city's public schools need fixing. Chicago fourth-grade and eighth-grade students lag national averages in a key test of reading ability, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Until Emanuel forced through a longer school day, which began last week, Chicago elementary and middle school students received instruction for fewer hours a year than any of 30 major cities studied by the National Center on Time and Learning, an education reform group.
Emanuel, a tough negotiator called a bully by the teachers union, wants to close underperforming schools, expand non-union charter schools, and let corporations and philanthropies run some schools.
He also wants principals to have the authority to hire who they want, and he backs the use of standardized test results and merit pay to evaluate and reward teachers.
The union wants to drastically reduce class sizes and increase funding for education. It is suspicious of efforts to erode traditional job protections such as tenure, teacher autonomy and seniority. The union believes charter schools - which are taxpayer-funded but not subject to all public school regulations - will undermine public education.
"What Emanuel represents is a new breed of urban mayors, pushing for a whole system of school improvements ... responding to public demand," said Kenneth Wong, director of the Urban Education Policy Program at Brown University.
Carroll said the two sides were still meeting late Thursday afternoon and planned to convene again on Friday.
Additional talks were possible over the weekend but a final schedule has not been agreed, she said.
The city of Chicago has allocated $25 million for what school district spokeswoman Becky Carroll called a "last resort" strike contingency fund.
The money would be used to provide breakfast and lunch to students in the district - 84 percent of whom qualify for free and reduced-price meals at school - and to pay for four hours of supervision at 144 of the city's 675 schools.
Children also would be housed in other public facilities and in churches.
Olga Lyandres, whose 6-year-old daughter is in the first grade at Chicago's Nettelhorst Elementary School, said she has not yet told her daughter about the possibility of a strike.
"I've just been waiting to see what's going to happen," she said.
(Additional reporting by Mary Wisniewski; Editing by Greg McCune and Lisa Shumaker)